BARBOURVILLE, Ky. - Every new season brings with it a new beginning, a clean slate if you will. And that is exactly what the Union College Bulldogs need.
From the opening game in 2011, the Bulldogs were hit with injury after injury, beginning with starting quarterback Mike Brinkley. The 6-foot signal-caller suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first half of the team's first game of the year at Campbellsville (Ky.). And the injuries began to mount after that.
Union finished the year 2-9 overall and 1-5 in the Mid-South Conference West, losing the final six games in a row.
But that was last year, and the Bulldogs are leaving 2011 in the past and focusing on 2012.
"The leadership from the senior class has been really good," said Tommy Reid, who is beginning his 12th full season at the helm. "Even through last year and preseason camp, the demeanor and the positive things the seniors are saying are keeping the focus off of last year. They are keeping things positive and keeping expectations high."
Union opens the 2012 campaign Saturday at Lindsey Wilson (Ky.). Kickoff is set for 2:30 p.m. Eastern.
Reid identified experience and depth as two of the team's strength, both of which stem from the Bulldogs' large senior class of 16 players.
"We've got lots of experience with our senior class, and we all know you can't replace experience," Reid said. "And we've got depth at all positions, especially at the skill positions. It's going to be hard for teams to take one guy out because we have so many we can turn to."
Union moved the ball well in 2011, gaining 4,303 yards in total offense and averaging 391.2 yards per game – 0.7 yards more than its opponents. However, the Bulldogs struggled to score on a consistent basis. Union tallied 266 points for a 24.2 point-per-game average, yet opponents averaged 35.5 points.
The Bulldogs, at times, struggled scoring in the red zone. Overall, Union had a 75 percent (27 of 36) success rate inside the opponent's 20-yard line, but only 21 of the 27 scores were touchdowns as Union tallied 166 points in the red zone. Conversely, the opponents scored 36 out of 43 times (83.7 percent) in the red zone with 29 touchdowns and a total of 217 points.
In the hopes of turning things around, Brinkley returns for his senior season after missing nearly all of 2011. He enters the year having thrown for over 2,000 years in a season three times as well as school-record 78 career touchdown passes. With 7,130 career passing yards, Brinkley is only 750 away from being the program's all-time leading quarterback.
"We're excited Mike's back with the game experience he has," Reid said. "He not only possesses knowledge of our system, but he recognizes defenses well."
Sophomore Ryan Moses filled in admirably last season in Brinkley's absence. Early on, he had a rough time getting things going, but Moses steadily improved as the season went on. He completed 177-of-305 passes for 2,298 yards and 17 touchdowns with 10 interceptions and rushed for 152 yards and three scores in 116 attempts.
"Ryan got better each week, but he didn't have a good understanding of our system (last season) because he wasn't in it very long," Reid said. "Now, we've got to experienced quarterbacks we can lean on."
Brinkley will have plenty of targets to choose from as Union is stocked at the wide receiver positions. In all, the Bulldogs have 24 wideouts on the roster. Domonique Jefferson is the top returning receiver with 23 catches for 337 yards and three touchdowns. Tyler Ross had 14 catches for 186 yards and a touchdown, and William McGarvey had 12 receptions for 122 yards.
Other key contributors will be Deron Hicks, Jared Smith and Jontrel Colbert. Hicks is back after missing most of last season due to an injury, and Smith red-shirted in 2011. Colbert was a key contributor for Union in 2011, but on defense. Short on defensive backs last season, he played in the secondary and compiled 27 tackles, two interceptions and two pass breakups.
"Overall as a group, our wide receivers are very athletic and quick," said Reid. "They have the ability to get open and make things happen once they make the catch."
In the backfield, Union returns Rob Brown who became the fifth player in program history to rush over a 1,000 yards in a season as he galloped for 1,110 yards and 10 touchdowns, averaging 5.1 yards per carry. He also hauled in 23 passes for 312 yards and two more touchdowns. Brown ranks fourth in program history with 2,017 career rushing yards.
"Rob is very capable of doing a lot of things. We can line him up in the slot, behind the quarterback and be creative in how we can get him the ball," said Reid.
Helping Brown at tailback will be Leonard Dixon and Brian Clark. Dixon is in his first season with the Bulldogs, while Clark rushed for 65 yards on 11 carries last season. Cody Sapcut and newcomer Kenny Hughes will split time at fullback. Sapcut had his 2011 season caught short thanks to an injury after rushing for 13 yards on four attempts.
Upfront, Union returns three starters on the offensive line in seniors Nick Garofalo, Jeremy Baker and Jonathan Shipley. Junior transfer Jose Avina and sophomores Jaylin Baker and Andy Flynn will help anchor the line.
Union will once again employ the 3-3 defense with an experienced defensive line returning. C.J. Hunnicutt, Isiah Anderson, Seth Jones and Mike Beard will be the main players on the line. Hunnicutt, Anderson and Beard will man the defensive in positions along with senior Joey Peak, who moves over to defense after spending three years on the offensive line. Jones will play the tackle position, rotating with sophomore James Tripp.
Anderson spent most of 2011 at linebacker, registering 44 tackles, 7.5 tackles for a loss and 5.0 sacks. Hunnicutt had only 18 tackles but delivered 5.5 tackles for a loss with Jones registering 20 stops and 4.5 tackles for a loss. Playing in seven games, Beard notched 16 tackles and 6.5 tackles for a loss.
The linebacker corps is stocked with experience as well with seniors Zach Eagler and Darrin Greene back for their senior years. Eagler is the team's top returning tackler with 45, while Greene made 36 stops in seven games before having the season halted with an injury. Helping them will be junior Ryan Shipley, who saw action in seven games and made 22 tackles.
Chris Pinnock and Otis Manning will rotate in the linebacker mix this season as will Deon Porter, Josh Miller and Russell Henry.
In the secondary, Bert Brown and Josh Nixon are the main players for the Bulldogs. Brown has been manning one of the cornerback positions the previous three seasons, but this year he moves to safety. One of the top pass defenders in the Mid-South Conference, Brown picked off three passes and broke up nine others last season to go with 45 tackles. He has seven career interceptions. Nixon recorded one interception and 19 tackles in seven games played in 2011.
"I'm concerned about our lack of experience in the secondary, but I am excited about the ability and depth of our new guys," Reid said of the secondary. "We've got five or six kids that'll be pretty darn if they stick with us for their careers.
"Hopefully, our front six, seven players will take care of business to take the heat off the young secondary."
Union enters the unknown in regards to its kicking game this season as it will turn to newcomers Jared Miller and Alex Peebles, who will share the kicking duties. As of now, Miller will handle the punting responsibilities with Peebles taking care of kickoffs, while both will take their turns at field goals and PATs.
The schedule is not kind to Union. Moved back to the Mid-South Conference East, the Bulldogs will play three of their first four games on the road with the home game being against long-time rival Cumberlands (Ky.) on Sept. 15. Union opens the season with back-to-back road games at Lindsey Wilson and Campbellsville (Ky.). After hosting Cumberlands, Union travels to Florida to face Webber International.
"The month of September is very crucial to us in shaping the identity of the team," said Reid.
In all, the Bulldogs will face six teams – all Mid-South Conference schools – ranked in the top 28 according to the 2012 NAIA Football Coaches' Preseason Poll.
"This is what makes competing in the Mid-South Conference so fun. There are no easy weeks," Reid said.
Union is picked to finish fourth in the Mid-South Conference East with Georgetown the favorite. Cumberlands is picked to place second with UVa-Wise third.